The Birth of a Gardener


Afp3aLast week I canvassed the world for new gardening coaches, and showed you a coaching client being interviewed by a reporter for Agence France-Presse.  Here’s the story – in English – and here, as promised, is the story behind the story. Susan

When Kirra Jarratt moved into her DC home last summer, the back and side yards were nothing but mulch.  The previous owners had had large dogs, and you can just imagine the realtor coming up with the mulch idea to cover up the ground, quick.  And it looked fine til the following spring, when the mulch was all gone and there was nothing but mud.  Something had to be done.  A quick call to a nursery brought some shocking news – that it would take a huge and surprisingly expensive amount of mulch to return the yard to its condition on move-in day, which mulch would again break down and return to mud.  The nursery offered this helpful advice, though: if she just bought some plants for the space, there’d be less bare ground to be covered in mulch.  As Kirra described it to me: "LIGHTBULB!" So, where does a total gardening newbie turn?

To a gardening coach, naturally, and I received an urgent email with the desperate mention of aKirraside300 housewarming party scheduled in just two weeks.  So I visited and found, as promised, not a single plant in the side and rear yards except a few weeds.  Not even a path through the mud.  But she was eager – and in a big hurry.  A visit to my own garden 5 minutes away helped
us choose her new plant, and I left her with these assignments:

  • To do: Take those stones that were piled up under her deck and arrange them in a nice curvey path along the length of the side yard, after doing a bit of regrading of the whole area.
  • To buy: Bags of mulch (there was no time to schedule a bulk delivery), nandinas, pieris japonica, acubas, an oakleaf hydrangea, pulmonarias, heucheras, and any other perennial for shade that might catch her eye (which a nice blue hosta did).

When she’d accomplished both lists I returned with my tools and about 30 plain hostas from my own garden, and Kirra’s mom had donated some humongous clumps of the lovely variegated liriope- excellent!  Here’s what we accomplished in two hours:

  • Deciding where everything would be planted, actually planting a few of plants to demonstrate.
  • Instruction in laying the stone path.
  • Instruction in watering.
  • Some pruning and instruction for more.
  • In the front, lifting and dividing a large hosta, instruction in dividing and siting more of them.
  • Also in the front, redrawing the border edge and instruction in sod removal and the creation of a new edge.
  • Plant suggestions for the front garden, for action at another time (we prioritized).

Two weeks later the whole place looked lovely and festive – inside and out – and the party was a good Kirraback350one.  I was there, introduced as her garden coach and handing out my card left and right.  Friends expressed amazement that Kirra had laid that path herself, that she’d created this garden herself, that she actually has a garden coach.  She tells me that neighbors are exclaiming, "Oh, you’re a gardener!" and she doesn’t know what to say. "Say yes, you are one."  And I know that not just by looking at her new garden.  I know she’s a gardener because she already says things like: "Knowing how to prune is so liberating," and "Gardening is meditative – and addicting!"  And because she has lots of plans for the fall – and knows to wait til then to add more plants.   So even a big-city lawyer can catch the
gardening bug.

Remember the huge amount of money that Kirra decided NOT to spend just to replace her mulch-only yard?  Her next financial decision came after spending $748 for plants and 20 bags of mulch.  Because she was in such a hurry, she contacted a garden maintenance company and was given a bid to:

  • Lay the stone path level with the grade, put her new plants in the ground and spread the mulch in the side and back yards.
  • Plant a flat of vinca, prune one crapemyrtle, and spread the mulch in the front yard.

For the sweet sum of $2,820! – and that’s for labor only, no plants. (No lie; Kirra has it in writing.)  What’s up with that?  Are these guys getting rich?  I really don’t get it, and this isn’t the first time I’ve been amazed by the high cost of maintenance.

Compare that to paying $300 for four hours of coaching (half of which covered design and plant recommendations), and doing the work herself.  "AND I would have had no idea how to maintain what they did! Granted, my path
would have been better graded, but I’m happy.  And everyone thinks that a professional landscaper did my yard!"  Looks like a happy coachee.  And she instructed me: "Don’t forget to mention that the other advantage/benefit of going with you was
you guided me to the local nurseries and gardening resources."  Going shopping with a coach can be a great learning experience, too.Kirra2300_2

The garden you see here isn’t a finished product, we all know that.  It and its gardener will be evolving over the years.  But already, people are giving Kirra their extra plants, continuing the wonderful tradition of passalong plants. 

Photos:  Top, coaching in progress, photo by Nicholas Kamm for AFP. (I’ve decided the Frank Zappa T-shirt doesn’t show up well, so it’s back to Hawaiian shirts for me.) Next, the side yard, with a path and the beginnings of a garden.  The acuba will cover lots of wall eventually, and a few more large plants will be added. Next, the back yard as seen from the deck shows an oakleaf hydrangea anchoring the corner, surrounded by pieris, nandina, and lots of perennials. On the right, Kirra in her side garden.


  1. Kirra, way to go! It’s already looking fabulous… and I think that Susan’s right. You can definitely confess to being a gardener when people ask. 🙂

    Susan, wonderful job. I love the explanations you gave, too, and wish that I could pass out your business card around here.

  2. Susan, what a great story. You are definitely on the leading edge of something here. Here’s hoping there are many more new gardeners in your future. (And good job to Kirra for making the smart decision to hire a gardening coach!)

  3. I’m always surprised when folks get alarmed about the price for a service or product, yet they have no idea what it takes. I work as a landscaper and put together estimates, so I know how the numbers are generated. And I’m certainly not getting rich, nor are any of the landscapers I know.

    Did anyone ask the landscaper how she/he came up with the figure? Did Kirra get any other estimates? I’d find that out before getting all outraged about the price. A good landscaper can explain how the price is determined.

    Landscaping is a skilled trade, just like cooking, housecleaning, carpentry — or garden coaching. It costs money. Or, you can do it yourself.

  4. David, you’re right and I meant to express puzzlement and confusion, not outrage. Probably Kirra’s high estimate reflected the professional quality path-laying job they would do, v. her amateur-but-good-enough job of path-laying. The previous example I linked to, though, I still don’t get. The $50/hour seems fair given what it takes to be in business; it’s the number of hours to do the job that puzzles me still.
    I *think* I appreciate the skill and difficulty involved in landscaping; I sure see the problems when unskilled people are hired instead.

  5. What a fantastic idea – a garden coach!

    Can you tell us more about how you do business?? (Or maybe you already have and I missed it…).

    Off to write a business plan…

  6. Hi Susan,
    My mom lives in Washington state and would be such a great garden consultant. How can I get her in a directory? She has worked for many years in the industry and would like to branch out into independent consultations.

  7. Where can a homeowner get honest advice about the correct plants for their space and light and zone. Today I saw offered for sale in Houston,Tx, Pieris, Peony, Tulips,Apricots and Lilacs with no suggestion as to the unsuitability of these for Houston… My friends call me constantly in the spring with emergency questions about things like sun, water and chilling hours…..I often walk gardens of new homeowners in spring just to identify plants and redefine the garden structure originally intended. Sometimes the simple removal of lesser or misplaced plants can renew a garden and that’s free. Often the proper recommendation for a plant can save tons of money for a person who might purchase too many plants or stuff that’s gonna die or get too big…..and I have never charged anyone anything but I ought to. Except, it’s so much fun to make a great garden and not spend any of my money. Since I’ve pretty much run out of places to grow stuff at my place, I can get them to buy it for themselves and just visit it. Or I can just give them stuff from my garden. They save more money. I have stopped people from ripping out what I know will be an amazing plant when it blooms and had them call me months later to describe the flowers on say….an Angel’s Trumpet. I have also done a toxicity walk-through so that poisonous plants will not remain in a yard with kids or pets. In Houston, that could be Sago Palm or Oleander, Castor Bean and so on. I am always happy to know that kids and pets are safe and nothing that’s not especially toxic was ripped out for no reason. Well, I sure can go on and on, so bye for now.

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